Most pregnancies in the U.S. are unplanned, yet we still don't celebrate these happy "accidents" as much as their planned counterparts. Here's how to change that.
Everyone loves to celebrate a baby on the way—but if your pregnancy wasn't planned, you may not always get the response you deserve from friends and family (or even the baby's daddy) when you reveal the big news. Yet, it's the pregnancies we're not expecting that sometimes need the most support. Even when they're not completely welcome, surprise pregnancies are just as valuable and valid as intentional ones. And they happen more often than you think.
Newsflash: Most pregnancies are unplanned
About 6.6 million pregnancies occur in the U.S. every year. While some end in miscarriage or abortion, about 4 million result in babies. According to the Guttmacher Institute, only 49 percent of pregnancies are "planned" pregnancies, meaning mom fully intended to become pregnant. The other 51% are unplanned, i.e. she may have even taken measures to prevent getting pregnant and still, conception happened. About 31 percent of unplanned pregnancies are considered "mistimed" (as in, she planned on getting pregnant eventually and the timing of this pregnancy isn't so great, but it's not the end of the world) and the other 20 percent are flat out unwanted.
While studies indicate that unintended pregnancies happen more often to poor and low-income women, women aged 18-24 and minority women, I can testify that unplanned pregnancies can happen to anyone. In fact, I'm right in line with national statistics—my four children are a 50-50 split between those who were planned and those who were big fat shockeroos.
Why so many accidental pregnancies?
The short answer is because men and women have sex and that's how pregnancy happens. Of the 43 million women who are sexually active and in their reproductive years, about 5 percent get pregnant even though they consistently and correctly use contraception. About 43 percent get pregnant due to either inconsistent or incorrect contraception use. The remaining 52 percent didn't use contraception at all. That may be because they didn't plan on being sexually active, they didn't have access to contraception, couldn't afford it or didn't know about it. Plus, some contraceptives work better than others. If a woman can't take, afford or tolerate a hormonal method like the pill or use an IUD, she's at greater risk for an unplanned pregnancy than a woman who can consistently use the pill, a patch, an IUD, or another highly reliable contraceptive.
My 50/50 split
When I announced my first pregnancy, a planned one, I was greeted with big congratulations and lots of support. When I got pregnant again, just nine months after my first baby was born, people were more conciliatory than congratulatory. Baby number three, born six years later was planned and welcomed. Baby number four came out of nowhere at a ridiculously stressful time in my life. Both of my unplanned pregnancies were the result of contraceptive failure and yet when I announced each one of them, I received responses that indicated people thought I might be just a wee bit careless, a speck irresponsible and 100 percent crazy. Some people even expected an explanation as to why I'd gotten pregnant again, as if I needed to justify myself.
What's interesting about society's reaction to unplanned pregnancies is that it often feels like the woman's fault—as if the fathers are just innocent bystanders. The teasing, innuendo and occasional snide remarks insinuated that I had done something wrong, as if becoming pregnant unintentionally was caused by a lack of intelligence or moral character. In truth, I was a smart, married, employed, and busy woman with a normal sex life who was using contraception and still got pregnant. Even if I hadn't been any of those things, unplanned pregnancy isn't a crime. Sometimes, it's a crisis, often it's inconvenient, but once a woman comes to terms with her pregnancy and decides how to proceed, it should never be considered a mistake.
Since half of us living in the U.S. (a country with much higher unplanned pregnancy rates than many others) are products of unplanned pregnancies, why do we give planned pregnancies all the glory while unplanned pregnancies get so much shade? Every woman deserves to have her pregnancy celebrated and supported like the birthday surprise it is. In fact, when a woman discovers she's unexpectedly expecting, she may need more support than ever, especially if her pregnancy comes at a bad time.
How to respond
If you're among the 51% of American mothers whose pregnancy wasn't part of the plan, what's the best way to deal with unplanned responses? Don't feel like you owe anyone an explanation, but if your pregnancy announcement doesn't get the response you deserve, consider arming yourself with a few snappy comebacks. When asked, "Is this a planned pregnancy?" you can answer:
- "It is now." - "Did you mother plan her pregnancy with you?" - "I planned on having a sex life and this is what happens sometimes."
Of course, if you'd rather take a more enlightened approach you can quote John Lennon who said, "Life is what happens when we're making other plans."
If someone you know announces a surprise pregnancy, squelch your impulse to question, judge or tease. The best response goes something like this: "Congratulations. What a lucky baby. You're going to be a wonderful mother. How can I help?"